By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
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"I think they were just sort of waiting on me, when I felt ready after I had Slade, to get back to work again," Natalie Maines says.
Hearing his cue, 18-month-old Jackson Slade Pasdar (the namesake of Home's show-off instrumental, "Lil' Jack Slade") begins chattering away in the background. It makes sense that he's here, too, because everything that happened in the past year has at least a little bit to do with him and Charles Augustus, the son Robison is expecting three weeks after the Chicks' October 19 gig at the Cotton Bowl. ("It'll be a show to see, for sure," Maines says. She laughs, like a kid with an armful of balloons. "I don't know that anybody has ever been onstage that pregnant...She has one of the largest bellies I've ever seen. I cannot believe that there is only one baby in there. But she's working it out, and she's a trooper.") The Dixie Chicks walked away because Maines was pregnant; they came back, in part, because Robison was.
"There were little victories, and really not a lot of huge victories," Maguire says, referring to the months-long dispute that cost the group more than $1 million in legal fees. "But after a year-and-a-half battle, we kind of felt like we're just three individuals, with a baby and a baby on the way. We can't put our lives and our careers on the line. We want to make music, and we won't become jaded by the business aspect of what we do." She adds, "I think there's a lot of things that need to be changed in the business."
Even though their battle with Sony more or less ended in a draw, they haven't shied away from that stance. It's even there on Home, if you choose to read between the lines, find the hate in the middle of its love songs. For instance, "Truth No. 2": "You don't like the sound of the truth/Coming from my mouth/You say that I lack the proof." Or "Tortured, Tangled Hearts," which they co-wrote with Nashville great Marty Stuart: "Such pretty words and golden rings/It was a broken dream right from the start." There's one much more obvious example. You have to open up the jewel case to see it, but still, it's hard to miss. There it is, on the back of the booklet accompanying the disc, in black block letters, filling the entire frame: WE ARE CHANGING THE WAY WE DO BUSINESS.
It is, perhaps, one last reminder of the year before Home was released. Or maybe that sign on the back of the CD booklet is just a warning to listeners, letting them know in advance that Home doesn't follow the familiar path of the group's previous two efforts, 1998's Wide Open Spaces and 1999's Fly. Still commercial, in its own way, but not like the albums that moved more than 22 million copies on the strength of such radio hits as "There's Your Trouble" and "Ready to Run." Home is somewhat of a return to Robison and Maguire's Deep Ellum street corner beginnings, minus the cowgirl fringe and novelty twinge. And it's a chance for Maines to show her deepening love for the bluegrass music Robison and Maguire introduced her to when she joined the band before Wide Open Spaces. But while there's plenty of picking on Home, there's not much grinning. (Save, of course, for "White Trash Wedding," which mows through the bluegrass with its "I shouldn't be wearing white/And you can't afford no ring" punch line.)
Actually, that message on the back is both. Or neither.
"We did that photo shoot a year and a half before the album," Maines says. "The photographer had taken a shot of that sign in a store window. We'd never even seen that picture until [art director] Kevin Reagan sent us the artwork." She laughs. "We've never heard a comment about that from the label." She laughs some more. "I was a little surprised they didn't care about that. And you know, they've given us freedom to do what we want to do, as far as that goes. You know, they know that we are going to continue to be a part of the RAC and be political in that way, and they don't try to stop us."
Not like they have much choice. Home is the Dixie Chicks' most critically successful album yet, and judging from its first month of sales figures, its final tally should rank right alongside Fly and Wide Open Spaces. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, not to mention Billboard's country chart, with the highest first-week sales--just shy of 780, 000--of any female group in the SoundScan era, which began in May 1991. In comparison, Fly debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 as well (the first country album to do so), but it sold less than half (341,138) as many copies.
That said, Home is less about making a political statement than a musical one. And it doesn't have anything to do with the state of country music, even if some people got that idea from the first single, Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone," with its "Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard/They got money but they don't have Cash" dig. It doesn't have anything to do with the music business, though many may have expected 12 tracks of protest poetry. More than anything, it's a pencil mark against the doorjamb showing how much they've grown. That was who we were then, it says; this is who we are now.